South Luangwa National Park, on the eastern side of Zambia, is one of the best places in Africa for a walking safari.
As a primordial dawn unfolds in a wild corner of South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Malemi, our guide, collects us from our tent for a walking safari and a morning game drive through the jungle’s rugged terrain. As our Land Rover speeds into the bushes, the green patches give way to overgrown shrubs, ancient baobabs and fruit-laden sausage trees before reaching a flat plain — the starting point of our walking safari. Having attended game drives earlier, I was skeptical of any wild sightings during this walk, aware that the animals were mostly nocturnal. But this concern was soon dispelled when we spot a leopard crouched on a tree, almost hidden amidst the thick foliage. But before our guide could warn us about the camera flash, the spotted beast bolts out of sight in a blink, leaving us jolted by its terrific speed. As the sun ascends, a troupe of baboons flocks to the watering hole nearby, jostling for space with the anxious impalas that’d raise their heads frequently to scan for hiding predators.
As we venture deep into the woods, our guide motions us to walk in a line. Following the close encounter with the jungle cat, his loaded pistol in his holster is reassuring and we scurry close to him. I can almost hear my breath and pounding heart in my ears as we stride quietly through the bushes, hoping to muffle the sound of footsteps crunching the dry leaves. Just then, leaves rustle nearby and we wait in anticipation, ready to scamper off if our mysterious visitor turns out to be unfriendly. Our fears are quelled when a family of warthogs surfaces from the bushes and scurries off hurriedly, sensing human presence. Malemi points to a tree, a few metres away, where camouflaged by the mid-morning shadow, is a sub-adult bull elephant, leisurely stripping leaves off the tree. Noticing the trunked mammoth to be a young adult, our guide cautions us about the presence of his herd nearby.
We didn’t have to wait long enough for his prediction to come true when a middle-aged female pachyderm comes tearing out of the bushes and stops only a few metres away from us. Our guide whispers a useful piece of information: Elephants can hear better than they see and if they are not charging towards you, keep still and the animal won’t hurt you. We stand motionless, holding our breath as the mighty elephant walks past us. As the pachyderm retreats into the thick shrubs, Malemi’s next bit of trivia is about how elephants only digest an average of 30 percent of their food. But the more astonishing piece of information is how the tusked mammal’s feces plays a significant role in maintaining the ecosystem — from serving as a habitat for various insects to being a meal for others. Numerous ants, insects call elephant dung home, while baboons sift through this glorious excreta in search of undigested nuts and fruits.
Our walk brings us to the banks of the Luangwa River and our guide points at the fresh tracks left by hippos, lions and hyenas. As we nervously scope our surroundings, anxious about spotting the bearers of the footprints, a pair of Thornicroft giraffes, endemic to South Luangwa, extends their necks to reach for the leaves. Also around are a herd of impalas grazing over the dewy grass, while crocodiles bask a few metres away. We’re also privy to a pod of hippos vying noisily for space. The park has the largest concentration of hippos with almost 100 hippos for every kilometre. As we take in this scene from Africa’s version of the Jungle Book, we are told that baboons can spot predators from a distance. And when they spot one, their loud wailings alert others of their kind and also the impalas that pick up on these warning signs.
The life source of this rich fauna at the national park is the Luangwa River. A tributary of the mighty Zambezi River, it meanders through the heart of the valley and rises and falls sharply with every season. The water level drops at the advent of winter when the river shrinks, drawing game to the waterholes.
Our walk is interrupted when the radio, tucked in our guide’s hand, crackles to life. After a brief exchange in his native language, our guide motions us towards the land rover. A leopard preying on his kill has been sighted nearby and as we reach ‘the spot’, our guide turns off the engine and motions us to be completely silent. As I scan through the thick grassy plains with my binoculars, I sense a presence. I catch my breath as my eyes meet the leopard’s as it stretches for a nap, barely bothered by his onlookers. A half-eaten impala, probably the mighty jungle cat’s lunch, lay beside him. Savouring this prized encounter, I feel privileged as this truly immersive experience of being in Africa’s wilderness comes to an end.